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The mystery of the dying swans

Over the last twenty years, the NW European population of Bewick’s swans has experienced a massive decline of nearly 40%. 

From 29,000 in the mid 90s, latest estimates suggest their numbers have plummeted to as low as 18,000.


What is causing this dramatic decline? 

Every autumn the Bewick’s undertake a massive 4,000km migration from their summer breeding grounds in arctic Russia, to their wintering sites in northern Europe.

This migration is not just a feat of physical endurance, but also a dice with death. What are the dangers they face along their flyway and what can be done to improve their chances of survival?

We desperately need answers before time runs out for the Bewick’s swan population.  

What do we know so far?

We’ve been studying the Bewick’s for over 50 years.  Since we started ringing the swan’s in the mid 60s there have been over one million sightings of the birds.

More recently we have been fitting tracking devices to some of the birds.  This has given us even better information about how they migrate between arctic Russia and northern Europe each year.

A volunteer holding a Bewick's swan whilst Larry Griffen attaches a GPS transmitter / collar to track swans. Picture taken during a Bewick's catch at Welney

All this information has enabled us to build up a fantastic bank of knowledge that is helping shed light on the dangers facing the Bewick’s.

The flying wounded

Nearly a quarter of all Bewick’s we monitor arrive at our UK centres with shotgun pellets in their bodies. Although the swans are legally protected across their flyway, illegal shooting is one of the biggest dangers facing Bewick’s along their flyway.

We’re working with remote hunting communities in Russia to understand where and why this hunting is taking place and identify ways of reducing illegal shooting.


Death by Collision

Because Bewick’s are large birds, they don’t manoeuvre well and are prone to collisions. Power lines present a real hazard.  This is a particular problem at dusk and dawn as the swans take off and land, as they simply can’t see them.

We’re working with power line companies to either bury or make the lines more visible. It’s a simple solution and is proving very effective.

Death by Poison

There is no safe level of lead for a swan.  Yet lead shot is still being used by hunters.  All too often discarded shot is left to contaminate swans’ feeding grounds. Once there, it’s easy for the birds to ingest by mistake when they are foraging.   Our research shows that a third of Bewick’s  found dead at sites across Britain over the last four decades had died from lead poisoning.

Some countries have already banned lead shot altogether.  We’re working to raise awareness of this issue and encourage hunters to use the widely available non-toxic alternatives.

Loss of valuable wetland habitats

Across their flyway, the swans rely on a chain of wetland sites where they can stop, feed and rest before continuing on their journey.  These “staging” sites are critical for their survival.  The loss of these valuable habitats poses a real threat to Bewick’s.

Over the last 100 years, the countryside in northwest Europe has undergone an extraordinary change, driven by the intensification of agriculture.  Wetlands, have been drained, ploughed and seeded with grasses and a variety of cash crops.  The swans have adjusted their habits accordingly and now feed on root crops – particularly sugar beet and potatoes, as well as cereals and grasses.  But what other effects might this loss of valuable wetlands be having on the swans?

Flight of the Swans brings together researchers, conservationists and communities all along the flyway.  Together we are demanding action to protect these vulnerable birds and the important wetlands they inhabit.

Sign our petition and share your support for Flight of the Swans.